Precision Technology for your Beef Operation

Jason Hartschuh, OSU Extension Field Specialist, Dairy Management and Precision Livestock

Use of technology can improve how we manage the cattle.

Precision farming technologies have greatly improved row crop production and many different technologies are available to change the way you manage your beef operation. For beef producers, there are two major classes of technology the first improves how we manage the cattle while the second improves forage and pasture management. Today we will discuss two cattle management technologies.

The first technology that is being transferred from the dairy industry is activity monitoring systems that include rumination and eating time. The systems are showing benefits for both cow-calf producers and feedlots. These systems utilize accelerometers mounted to either the cow ear, a collar around the neck, or to the leg. The ear and neck-mounted systems are seeing the greatest adoption in cow-calf operations that are using artificial insemination for heat detection. All of these systems can be moved to a different animal if the one they are on leaves the herd. These systems can improve artificial insemination especially if you are not using a timed AI protocol. For operations that use timed AI, these systems have shown value in detecting cows that come into heat after the timed AI protocol either because the protocol didn’t work for them or because they didn’t become pregnant from the insemination with timed AI. Most of the research on these systems was done using dairy cows but a few studies have utilized beef cows. The major difference found between dairy and beef cows for these systems was the length of increased activity is higher in beef cows and heifers. One study showed that an automated activity monitoring system detected 90% of animals in estrus and using blood tests to confirm estrus it had a 100% accuracy. While traditional visual heat detection methods of watching animals for heat 3 times per day only found 77% of cows who were in estrus with an 89% accuracy.  Another study also showed very good results from these systems finding 83% of animals who were in heat with a 91% accuracy. Using only the activity monitoring system to detect heat achieved a 97.9% pregnancy rate after a maximum of 4 insemination cycles. One challenge with activity monitoring systems is that not all systems will alert you to animals who are not cycling. With these systems, it is important to check your insemination records to be sure all animals are cycling. Animals who either have silent heats or who are not cycling may still need to be enrolled in a timed AI program.

Besides the sensor mounted on the animal, your farm also needs a receiver that the animal will be near a couple of times a day, and a computer to translate the data through a management interface. Some systems require this computer to be connected to the internet while others require an occasional internet connection when an update is wanted for the management interface. The systems that require an internet connection give you the benefit of accessing the data from anywhere in the world. For confinement-based operations getting complete barn coverage is not difficult but for pasture-based systems, this can be more challenging. Although around the world these systems are being utilized in many pasture-based systems. Usually, the receiver antenna is mounted at the water source and is powered using a battery and solar charging system. These systems have been shown to relay data between receivers for over a mile of pasture coverage.

These systems are also seeing adoption in the feedlot industry for illness detection. While there may be better systems for illness detection such as intraluminal temperature monitoring activity systems. Activity monitoring systems can be reused for as long as the batteries are good. When selecting a system for possible illness detection it is important to select a system with activity, rumination, and eating time. Animals with bovine respiratory disease often show decreased activity, feeding time, and rumination time along with increased lying time 2 to 7 days before clinical signs of respiratory disease. While early detection has shown shortened illness time producers have to use more advanced diagnosis methods. Decreased activity and eating time can be caused by other diseases besides respiratory disease including lameness. The advanced diagnosis often includes taking the animal’s rectal temperature and learning to listen to the lungs for sounds of illness. More research is being done with these systems to improve the disease detection algorithm since most systems were not originally designed for disease in feedlot cattle the current low activity, low rumination, and low eating time alerts have shown benefits for early disease detection in feedlots though.

The second technology that is needed in conjunction with many other technologies is Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) ear tags. These tags are the starting point for many smartphone-based record-keeping systems and precision feeding systems. These tags can be automatically read by a panel reader or stick readers in conjunction with a management app to automatically record weights when used with a scale. RFID tags can also be scanned when doing vaccinations, treating, or breeding animals to make record-keeping easier. RFID tags are also the base for many of the automated feeding systems on the market. These systems let you create groups of animals that receive a set amount of feed to meet their nutritional needs each day while other animals fed by the same feeder receive a different amount of feed. These feeding systems could allow you to supplement additional nutrition to first lactation cows who are still growing while raising a calf and provide a lower plan of nutrition to multiparous cows, so they don’t get fat. RFID-based automated feeding systems are also being utilized to allow for the nutritional needs of placement heifers who are grazing the cows to have their nutritional needs met. These systems allow for groups of animals to be fed based on individual needs instead of the whole group receiving the same nutrition. Many precision livestock farming tools allow for groups of animals to be cared for at the individual level.

EDITOR’s NOTE: Learn more about precision livestock technologies and Activty and temperature monitoring systems for cattle during the February 28th session of the Precision Livestock Farming Education webinar series.